A college education has never been more expensive. Getting one child through school often requires tremendous financial sacrifice. This sacrifice normally comes in the form of prolific savings before school or decades worth of student loan repayment after school.
For large families, things are even more challenging. Multiple kids mean multiple tuition bills and more extensive planning.
Changes coming to the FAFSA for the 2024-2025 school year will present even more hardships for families with multiple kids in school at the same time.
Smart planning won’t necessarily make things easy, but it will open the door to some possibilities that would have otherwise been impossible.
A Note from the Sherpa: This topic is highly personal to me. I’m the oldest of five kids, and at one point, all five of us were attending college.
My education wouldn’t have been possible without a combination of parental help, grants, scholarships, in-state tuition, student loans, and working year-round.
Things were not easy, and we made mistakes along the way, but all five of us got the education we needed.
Multiple Kids Means Extended Planning
Getting one child through college requires serious planning. I think it is critical that families make a plan for an entire education rather than thinking one semester or even one year at a time.
The challenge with multiple kids is that family resources are finite, and it is really hard to spread things out fairly.
If you burn through all of your resources helping your first child attend school, what will your other children do?
What happens if you set aside money for all of your kids and the youngest child doesn’t attend college?
What do you do if one child decides to attend an expensive school while another child gets a scholarship and needs less help?
You may already know the answers to these questions. You may not. The critical detail is that you think about these possibilities.
Landmines to Avoid
The best approach for allocating resources will be unique to your family and your individual values.
However, there are a few definitive mistakes that all families will want to avoid.
Don’t Cosign for Too Much Debt – If private student loans are necessary to pay for college, be careful with cosigning. In most cases, a cosigner is a necessity to get a private loan. Getting approved for that first loan might be easy. However, as the cosigned debt balance grows, the cosigner’s DTI will look worse and worse. If you are not careful, by the time child number three is in college, private loans may not be available.
Be Careful with Parent PLUS Loans – The nice part about Parent PLUS loans is that the credit check is much easier. Parents can borrow as much as necessary to pay for the cost of attending college. The danger here is that you can rack up so much debt you will never be able to repay it. Many senior citizens have their social security checks garnished because of federal student loans.
Mistakes with too much debt could mean that you cannot assist your younger children with school.
Planning for College as a Family
Many parents and children make the mistake of treating college as an achievement earned through hard work.
At best, college is an investment. Some investments are better than others, and some are unaffordable.
Managing money is an essential skill to survive in our society. Including your kids in the college planning will help them develop this skill and encourage them to make smart decisions when selecting a school.
Don’t Get Fooled by the Sticker Price
Some schools have high tuition but take steps to make things affordable. Other schools seem more affordable but could cost more.
At Harvard University, tuition is over $55,000 per year. However, according to the Department of Education’s College Scorecard, the average annual cost is only $13,259. For a family with an income between $48,000 and $75,000 per year, the average yearly cost drops to $538.
Compare that to a public school like Ohio State University. In-state tuition is just over $12,000 per year. However, the College Scorecard found that the average annual cost was $18,623. For a family with an income between $48,000 and $75,000 per year that average annual cost is a staggering $14,619.
The lesson here isn’t that private schools are more affordable — in many cases, they are the more expensive option.
Instead, I’d like families to take away two important nuggets of information:
- The listed price of a school often has very little to do with the cost of attending that school. Careful planning requires digging deeper.
- The Department of Education College Scorecard is a gem. For each school, there is a wealth of data to help families make informed decisions.
New FAFSA Issues for Large Families
Recently, legislation was passed with the reasonable goal of simplifying the FAFSA. Unfortunately, the planned simplifications will make college much more expensive for larger families, starting with the 2024-2025 school year.
The FAFSA is used to calculate a student’s EFC (Estimated Family Contribution). If the EFC for one family is $10,000, need-based financial aid is granted assuming the family can contribute $10,000. If four kids are currently in college, the $10,000 EFC drops to $2,500 per student.
Starting with the 2024-2025 school year, the EFC doesn’t get divided by the number of children attending school. In other words, if four kids are in school simultaneously, each has the original EFC of $10,000.
If there are years when multiple kids will be in school, things may become exceptionally difficult.
Sherpa Tip: Even though the number of children attending college will no longer influence aid calculations, the question remains on the FAFSA.
When the time comes, students can file an appeal with the school asking for more aid on the basis that there are multiple kids in school. This process won’t guarantee a good outcome, but it could save large families thousands of dollars each year.
Additionally, many schools have their own financial aid resources, and these applications may still consider how many children are attending college.
Getting Creative with Assistance
Writing a big check each semester is unaffordable in many households — especially if you have multiple kids in school.
If money has to get borrowed, the safest bet is having your child get a federal student loan in their name. Federal loans have the most repayment flexibility and the most generous forgiveness options.
If federal loans to the student are insufficient, some families elect to go with either cosigned private loans, Parent PLUS loans, or home-equity loans. Each option comes with unique pros and cons that must be weighed carefully.
Another option is to focus on helping your kids with repayment after school. For many kids, this form of assistance will be more appreciated, and this approach can help families split resources more efficiently.
If one child gets a six-figure computer programming job after school and another child struggles to find a job, a perfect 50/50 split may not be the best approach. Delaying some assistance for student loan repayment makes this option a possibility.
Don’t Stretch Too Far
Sometimes the best thing you can do for your child is to bluntly inform them that they cannot afford to attend their preferred school.
It sucks, and it’s not fair, but it is reality.
It might also be the best decision for your child.
We think of someone who is 18 as an adult, but their brain is still developing. It isn’t until around age 25 that people are fully equipped to make rational decisions instead of emotional choices.
Paying for school is tough, and it is even more challenging with multiple children. Once you factor in the expected price increases over the years and the potential cost of graduate school, the numbers get crazy quickly.
Don’t overextend yourself financially because you don’t want to fail your kids. If anyone failed, it is the leadership in this country that allowed college to become a privilege for the wealthy rather than something reasonably attainable for all.
Affordable options exist that can suit just about any budget. The key is to look at things critically and be willing to make tough choices.